CNN Report Shows College Athletes are Barely Literate

A recent CNN investigation has found that some college athletes are in a unique situation where they look, act and play like adults, but possess child-like reading skills, or even none at all. How did this divide happen?

CNN asked 37 public post-secondary schools (where open records apply) for aptitude and test score data, only receiving information from 21; the other 16 schools refused, cited privacy policies, or didn't respond in time. Of the schools that did, they include both big- and small-name institutions, ranging from the likes of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, LSU and the Clemson University to Northern Illinois University and the Oregon State University.

The results were shocking in the worst kind of way.

Many students enrolled in the "big" sports of football and basketball can't read, or read at a below-high school level. For example, of the 183 athletes who attended UNC from 2004-2012, almost two-thirds wouldn't be able to open a high-school textbook and make sense of it. Even worse, 8-10% of student-athletes' reading levels were below the third grade.

Moving west across the country maintains the same poor results: the University of Oklahoma recorded the test scores of 109 athletes from 2007 to 2009, and found that 19.2% scored less than 17 on the ACT, or less than 820 on the SAT (the national average for 2007 to 2009 was 1511, 1511, 1509, respectively.) U Oklahoma also provided data for the rest of its students, with the average ACT composite score registering 26, and the average SAT verbal score being 575 verbal (the national average from 2007 to 2009 was 501.33.)

Mary Willingham of UNC-Chapel Hill recalled during her years as a reading specialist that students who couldn't read weren't an anomaly, but a regular occurrence. She also admitted she "took part in cheating [by] signing her name to forms that said she witnessed no NCAA violations when in fact she did" but "only did it with athletics, because it was necessary." And not as a defense of her actions, but Willingham also carried out a large-scale intensive study of UNC-Chapel Hill student-athletes when she herself was a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro that was a precursor to CNN's.

But despite the troubling finds—a country that not only has student-athletes' illiteracy levels on par with developing countries like Senegal and Somalia, but also promotes illiteracy by accepting high numbers of illiterate athletes—the results seem to be symptomatic rather than endemic. While it's easy to point the finger at student-athletes and say that should be better educated, the school system as a whole is failing because they continually admit students who cannot perform at the post-secondary level—and then reward them handsomely for it.

And although many academic institutions have either implemented reforms or have promised to, change is hard to believe when hundreds of millions of dollars are being funneled into athletics, not academics.

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